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Reflections on Ramadan and Interfaith Iftars

Reflections on Ramadan and Interfaith Iftars by Rabbi Jeff Berger

Ramadan UK 2019 occurred from 5 May to 4 June, and the fasts typically began as early as 3:00am and often went out after 9:00pm.

Now here’s a little bit of astronomy for you. A solar calendar has 365 1/4 days, the lunar one is roughly 354 1/3 days. While the Jewish calendar is solar-lunar in composure and adjusts so that Passover always falls during the spring, the Muslim one is only lunar. Thus, each year the start of Ramadan shifts by 11 days. Muslims over 18 years old will remember fasting in the middle of the English winter when dawn is close to 8:00am and sunset occurs around 4:00pm. Muslims also have a way of adjusting the time for breaking-the-fast in areas closer to the polar caps where sunset is delayed for long periods.

Occurring in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and involving fasting (sawm) from pre-dawn to dusk as well as much prayer and reflection, the month of Ramadan marks the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).

For the devout, it offers an opportunity to read through Islamic Scripture, leading to a sense of spiritual purification. Muslims are encouraged to increase their financial giving (zakat), and all good deeds (taqwa) are amplified many times over.

Children above puberty are expected to fast during the month of Ramadan. Men and women refrain from marital relations. There are fasting exemptions for pregnant and nursing women as well as for the sick or the elderly. The fast ends each day with a meal known as Iftar.

At Mitzvah Day, most of our staff were invited to join an Iftar at least once last month. Whether it was a gathering like the one hosted by Naz Legacy in partnership with the Mayor of London, which began at St Pauls Cathedral with Bishop Sarah with the Iftar meal at Guildhall joined by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, or more local ones, like in Gospel Oak where the community is still coming to grips with a fatal knife crime that occurred in early April, the overwhelming sense a guest receives is a deep warmth and hospitality. The hosts went to great lengths to provide kosher food for Jewish visitors and to cater for all different dietary requirements, and the warmth of welcome and embrace overflowed.

Iftars are a bit like the New Year count down. People begin gathering an hour or so before the fast goes out, to either help set up the room or to hear speeches from the local Imam or community leaders explaining the aims of Ramadan and some of the tenets of Islam. More than once, unsuspecting non-Muslim guests were caught off guard when a microphone was handed to them with the request to say a few words.

And then, as the Muezzin calls out the end of the fast, you can hear bottles uncapped and the sound of water pouring into glasses, followed closely by the offering of a very sweet dried date. The rest of the evening progresses rather quickly as there is only a short while to have the first bites of food before it’s time for the night prayers. The main meal follows thereafter.

Beyond the incredible and seemingly effortless hospitality from those who have been without food or liquid for 18 hours day-in and day-out throughout Ramadan, is that sense of holiness that comes from religious fasting. Over the past few years it has become commonplace for government offices, synagogues and churches to host Iftars for their Muslim neighbours – as a way to reach out, to build bridges and to improve social cohesion.

From a Jewish perspective, one couldn’t help but notice remarkable similarities. In Hebrew the word for Fasting is Tsom compared to the Arabic Sawm. Muslims have a tradition during the last 10 days of Ramadan to increase their reading of the Quran in the Mosque. Because it’s not known on which night (Laylat al Qadr) the revelation occurred, there’s a custom to stay awake on odd-numbered nights. Many Jews just did the same thing on Shavuot to commemorate the revelation at Sinai.

The Mitzvah Day Team would like to extend a special thanks to all those that hosted us and to all those that extended invitations, as we couldn’t attend them all. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be so warmly welcomed into so many communities this past month and we look forward to joining you for Mitzvah Day projects in November!

Shavuot – Festival of the Harvests

Shavuot – Festival of the Harvests

Shavuot is one of the 3 major ‘foot festivals’ in the Torah because it was a time of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Biblical description of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, marks the conclusion of the counting of the 49 days, 7 weeks of the Omer which counts the time from Passover to Shavuot, the harvest festival. There are two harvest items that were taken as offerings to the temple, the first being an offering of 2 superior loaves of bread made of the finest white flour from the new wheat crop and the second was bringing the first summer fruits.

The Talmud describes how farmers throughout the land would tie their first new buds with a ribbon and later when these matured into fruits, they would be harvested, delicately placed in a basket and taken to the Temple in gratitude to the Almighty for the land’s bountiful produce.

Not long ago on a study tour in Israel, a Christian minister was awestruck trying to imagine the animated procession of devout farmers on their ascent to the Holy City, because pilgrimage is a part of all of the Abrahamic traditions. For Muslims, hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, bears a striking resemblance to our foot festivals and even the word chag and haj can be seen to come from the same root sources.

When the pilgrims arrived to Jerusalem with their gifts, the farmers would recite a declaration that still appears in our Passover Haggadah, a testimony to the Almighty’s kindness not just to us, but to our forefathers going back to the promise made by G-d to Abraham and his descendants.

Shavuot is also associated with the Book of Ruth because it takes place during the harvest season, and Ruth who was widowed and living with her widowed mother-in-law Naomi, extended herself in an act of selflessness and kindness by collecting grain for their household. The once wealthy Naomi who had lost her status and possessions during a prolonged stay in Moav, was left with nothing except the generosity of the local farmers, who according to the Torah laws, allocated a portion of their fields for the poor. Ruth’s good fortune was to end up in the field of Boaz, a wealthy and generous patron.

From these 2 elaborate harvest ceremonies and from the decision by the sages of old to link the Book of Ruth with Shavuot, we can learn important lessons. The first I would like to focus on is the need for those of us who have plenty, to follow the example of Boaz, to graciously share what we have with those in need.

The second message we can take is that, whether it would have been commanded in the Torah or not, we are universally and morally compelled to help look after the welfare of our fellow human beings. For those in need of compassion, or for others starting their lives over after traumatic circumstances forced them to relocate to the UK, surely we can spare something, especially a small portion of our time, to be of support to them.

This is a message especially relevant for those of us at Mitzvah Day who continually reach out to charity partners old and new, and our dedicated Mitzvah Day participants, learning about their needs and how we can support them both during Mitzvah Day and throughout the year.

Be sure to check out our available projects page and make sure you’re registered for Mitzvah Day 2019, November 17th! https://mitzvahday.org.uk/get-involved/sign-up/

Wishing you a joyous Shavuot festival,

Rabbi Jeff and the Mitzvah Day team